Inner Tension

Inner Tension

So, you’ve been given a predesigned character that you’re going to be playing in a larp. You read the character sheet. “Yes,” you think to yourself , “this sounds kind of like a person. I can see where they fit into the larp setting and the designer’s overall scheme. I can see how they are intended to behave and present themselves.” But! Maybe it feels a bit thin and schematic? Maybe the designer has thought hard about how this character contributes to the larp, but hasn’t had time to think quite so hard about what it will be like to actually play them for a weekend? Maybe they are lacking in the sort of interest that turns a character from a space-filler into someone memorable?

This is where inner tension comes in. Think of the character sheet, as presented to you, as showing the outer layer of the character — how they appear to the rest of the world, how they engage with the larp environment by default. But then within that, there will be another person — or maybe more than one — which may inform behaviour, decisions, actions, etc. in a way that’s not obvious and predictable from looking at the outward nature of the character. And maybe there will be interesting tensions between the outer persona and the inner person, that will generate play for yourself and for your co-players.

This technique is a shortcut. You may be happier with a detailed psychological exploration of your character to unfold its inner workings in depth. But not everyone works that way; and sometimes even if you do, you might end up in similar places.

What is Inner Tension?

Let’s take an example from the most familiar generic fantasy setting: your character is a tavernkeeper. This is an easy stereotype to play: the tropes of a tavernkeeper include bonhomie, tolerance up to a point, the capability of violence, and so on. But what will make your tavernkeeper different from any other? Perhaps, back when they were a kid, they really wanted to be a paladin when they grew up. And perhaps that ‘inner paladin’ is still present. This will affect things like how they deal with bad behaviour in the tavern. It may mean that they address some clients with more respect than others. It may mean that they don’t cooperate with the local thieves’ guild — or perhaps they do, as part of a plan to expose them? Perhaps they have a set of rules, rituals, and dogmas that they adhere to, to the annoyance or amusement of their regulars.

This is a process of analysis, rather than exploration — which means it can be used on short notice. When someone in the tavern starts reminiscing about their time on crusade, you as a player immediately know how to respond — you’d love to go on a crusade, if it wasn’t for the responsibility of this tavern — and people will see how the tavernkeeper’s eyes will light up.

If you have a more ‘method’ approach to characterization, the same technique can still work. Robert de Niro famously said (Levy 2014) that, when preparing to play the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he thought of the drivers as hermit crabs, each scuttling around the city in their own shell. Perhaps your tavernkeeper’s internal identity might be a hermit crab? They’ve decorated and pimped the tavern to express their personality. Within it, they feel safe — armoured, at home, and confident. Outside the tavern, they might feel naked — exposed. They might stick to walls and corners, and be nervous about being approached closely. Hermit crabs are always on the lookout for bigger shells, so that they can grow — is the tavernkeeper keen to expand, asking for word of larger properties that might be coming vacant? Maybe they are grabby, and when they take money, they unconsciously shape their fingers into claws?

Added Depth

When asked to make an unexpected decision or choice, players tend to react in a rather binary way — “What do you want to drink?” will often be met with, either the obvious thing or the same thing that the player themselves would drink, or else the opposite. But thinking about the hermit crab: perhaps when in their own tavern, they drink like a monarch, the best wine in the house. But when elsewhere, perhaps they are too wary to drink anything but water — or anything at all.

A character can have multiple inner tensions. Another approach is to use a composite of people who you know in real life. Perhaps, instead of a paladin or a hermit crab, the way the tavernkeeper presents themselves physically is driven by Person A inside; perhaps the way they behave socially is driven by Person B; etc. So, perhaps the friend from whom you have drawn Person A gets up early in the morning, so as to fit in a lengthy preparation routine. How will that feel for the character, when you do it at the larp? Why do they feel the need to do this? How does it interact with the other aspects of their life as a tavernkeeper? Not having these answers given to you in a prescriptive way, in a deep character description or in a shallow one that you have made deep yourself by exploring it, can be liberating. Real people don’t always have rational explorations for how they do things, and don’t always have answers to questions — a lot of the time, they just act out of habit or instinct. A character who is too strongly guided by purpose or whose reactions have been fully reasoned out often won’t feel as real.

Tension within the character is what produces interesting play — for you, and for those around you. Thinking about internal identities can be a way to quickly and easily generate internal tension. It can enable you to respond realistically to unexpected situations and to ensure that your characters are memorably different from one another, different from other similar characters, and different from yourself.

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Mo Holkar is a British larp designer and organizer. He is part of the Larps on Location design collective, and was formerly an organizer of The Smoke and of The Game Kitchen. He is a member of the editorial board of
Monica Hjort Traxl (b. 1982) is a Copenhagen-based larper and gamer. She is somewhat known for having a very rare last name.